There is a family in Virginia whose last memories of their son and brother are in a jail’s visitation room. Lutalo Octave was feeling more like himself that day. Enough like himself that he was processing the things he had done to land himself in jail. Lutalo Octave was charged with arson for burning his family’s house down. No one was in the home at the time. It was while he was in jail that he was diagnosed with Schizophreniform, a mental disorder. The family’s story was chronicled in the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Lutalo wasn’t violent. The photo of him in the paper is angelic, and from all accounts I have read, he was a sweet, thoughtful kid who liked video games, played a tuba and was a lifeguard. He wasn’t hurtful. He could have been my boy. He could have been the boy next door. He could have had a future. Life had different things in store for him though.
Something went a little wrong in Lutalo’s mind. It wasn’t a choice, no more than someone chooses to get cancer. He went off to college and a wire got crossed somewhere in his brain. I suppose no one will ever know the trigger. It could have been destined from birth, or maybe there was some sort of environmental factor. All that is known is that Lutalo changed. I always heard that if you raise your kids right, they will find their way back if they veer off course. Lutalo didn’t have a choice to find his way back. He had an illness. An illness that had him battling within his own head.
It’s not easy to get help if your adult child has a mental illness in this country. Often times there is nothing you can do once they turn eighteen, unless they harm themselves or others. You’re helpless. You watch. You try to make sense of it. You struggle with searching for ways to help. You try to piece together logical solutions to a problem that doesn’t follow a logical pattern. It’s like fighting a fire with a water pistol, but the hardest part is that the fire is trying to engulf your kid.
Lutalo left college. He lost his job. He was not acting himself, not because he wanted to be someone else, rather because his mind wasn’t working properly. His family could only watch in frustration. Forcing someone with a mental illness to seek help, is often a losing battle. They can’t see what you see. They don’t recognize their own illness. You wouldn’t lay a newborn baby in the arms of a mentally ill person, because they aren’t always capable of handling the responsibility. It isn’t that they wish to harm anyone. They are no more capable of making healthy choices for themselves than they would be for a baby. But our system doesn’t take into account that an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cure mental illness. You can’t force help on a mentally ill adult, unless they have already harmed someone. So, Lutalo’s family could only watch.
Lutalo’s illness sometimes showed up in the form of fire starting. Again, his family was unable to get anyone to help. Then he burned the house down. Lutalo was charged with arson and taken to jail. The tender hearted, book reading, video playing musician was taken into custody. He wasn’t taken to a hospital or a mental health facility. He was taken to jail. And, although the mom in me knows that Lutalo’s parents knew he didn’t belong in jail, I would imagine that, for a moment, they were able to breath, and think that he was in a safe place until they could get him moved to a treatment facility. That is what I would have been thinking, if I had never been exposed to our criminal justice system.
Lutalo’s illness may not have been curable, but it was treatable. Lutalo was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder while at the jail. He was also placed on suicide watch after saying he had nothing to live for.
I have learned all my life that if you have something that belongs to someone else, you take better care of it than you would your own. I would like to think that goes for human beings as well. Lutalo was in the care of a jail. They took him into custody for a crime committed because of an illness that he would never have chosen to have. No one would choose schizophrenia.
Lutalo ended up taking his life in a jail cell. He was by himself. There was a metal shelf on the wall in his cell. He was supplied with a sheet. There was a broken camera in the room. There was also a functioning camera that could record only part of the room. I have to wonder if the person who was supposed to be monitoring the cameras had any concerns that one of the devices was not working. I would think that a camera meant to monitor someone on suicide watch should be operating. If it were my child, I would want it working.
Excuses can be made. Arguments can be said that there are staffing issues or funding issues. Excuses and arguments are why our criminal justice system is what it is today. It’s time to say it’s broken. It needs to be fixed. The time for excuses and arguments has passed. The system needs to be fixed, and it needs compassion to be one of its cornerstones. When the sun goes down, Lutalo’s family has to deal with the memories of his sweet face. They have to relive the last day they saw him when he was just their lost son and brother, wanting so desperately to come home with them. They had to watch him walk away from them at that visitation. They have to relive that over and over. That kind of pain leaves no room for excuses and arguments.
Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Henrico County Family Watches Helplessly as Ambitious Teenager Spirals into Darkness.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.
Kleiner, Sarah, and Burnell Evans. “Part 2: Mentally Ill Man Threatens Suicide, Then given a Cell with a Sheet and a Shelf.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.